Germany and the Battle Over Political Correctness

Today’s world, today’s challenges and today’s politics cry out for media commentators to make careful distinctions.

February 24, 2022

The generally excellent Berlin daily newspaper, Der Tagesspiegel, has just cut off its nose to spite its face. In a move that leaves it bereft of its most thought-provoking weekly columnist, the editors have effectively forced out Harald Martenstein, who has worked at the newspaper since 1988.

His transgression? Making a distinction.

His greatest skill? Making distinctions.

On display: Germany’s weak underbelly

German society’s weakest underbelly when it comes to anything referring to the country’s past history? Making distinctions.

Martenstein wrote in a column published on February 6, 2022, about demonstrators in Israel, France and more recently, Germany, about anti-vaxxers who chose to wear the Judenstern, the yellow Star of David that Jews were forced to wear during the Nazi terror.

Martenstein wrote (my transcription based on the original text) that those who chose to wear the Judenstern did so to make themselves “into an absolute Good, an absolute victim.”

Their abuse of this unquestionably very shameful symbol of Germany’s dark Nazi history is despicable. Martenstein pointed out that those protesters’ action was presumptuous, that it does dilute history and that it is hard for survivors to witness. But, he opined, it is not anti-Semitic.

The columnist’s assertion was subsequently discussed intensively inside the Tagesspiegel, but only after outside voices had taken exception to Martenstein’s writing.

As the Americans say (I am one by virtue of birth), reasonable people can disagree about it.

Freedom of the press, remember?

What reasonable people who believe in freedom of the press really should not disagree about is that the columnist had a right to express that opinion, particularly as it was based on a well-reasoned distinction.

Martenstein made the distinction between, on the one hand, people who compared living politicians, parties and movements to Hitler and the Nazis, making their current domestic political “enemy” into the ultimate form of the bad, and, on the other hand, those anti-vaccination demonstrators wearing the Judenstern, who wanted to signal – perversely and inappropriately – their own supposed oppression.

He maintained, correctly in my view, that the people who equated those two groups manifested a fundamental contradiction in their own thinking.

Furthermore, in his subsequent farewell article in Der Tagesspiegel (following a decision by the top brass to expunge his presumably offensive column from the newspaper’s electronic records), Martenstein explained resolutely that he held those demonstrators to be dumb and ahistorical.

But he wrote that other people who have demonstrated about destroying the state of Israel are far more dangerous. Clear distinctions.

An inside job

Here’ s the rub: The newspaper published Martenstein’s farewell piece on Sunday, February 20, with an editorial note from the “Chefredaktion,” the editor(s)-in-chief. They stated that the column – one in well over a thousand he wrote for the newspaper over his many years there — had been strongly criticized by internal editors and by readers.

OK, that’s fine. That’s freedom of opinion.

Then comes the explanation (my translation): “The editors have intensively considered this column and the criticism of it. We have conducted conversations with colleagues (female and male, about which the German language is painfully and these days, politically correct and precise), social scientists, those affected and the author himself, and we decided, that we should never have published the column and we therefore have deleted the column from the online edition of the newspaper.”

Of course, the editor – who must have read and published the column – is still with the paper, one must assume. No word on the bad oversight, based on the newspaper’s current logic. When things like that happened at the venerable New York Times, the opinion editor was axed.

German history versus self-righteousness

All of this is so very German and so very, very Berlin leftist. Germans not only love to discuss everything into the ground.

The political correctness brigades also obliquely like to refer to “scientists” validating the top brass’s ex post facto view – without naming them.

That happens when everybody knows that on most issues – and on this one in particular – “scientists” can be found to validate many a viewpoint. Just pick your social scientist.

Now, let me be clear: I am a great admirer of Germany’s Vergangenheitsbewältigung, its official coming to terms with its history.

In fact, I have been since the 1980s when I studied three years in Bonn before finishing my PhD dissertation on the Jewish post-war poet Paul Celan, a true master of the German language.

For the record, I find the anti-vaxxers despicable anywhere. I was very happy to see that the Berlin police had decided to disallow use of the Judenstern in demonstrations.

Often, I have said that Germany is the only country that has truly taken responsibility and owned up to its past.

So it is no surprise that the weighty subjects pertaining to German history would be subject to massive discussion. And they have been – to the country’s credit.

The US must still come to terms with racism

That is certainly not true of my culture – just witness the current culture war in the United States about critical race theory and how to teach American history. It amounts to the right and conservatives in general not wanting to teach the truth about slavery and civil rights.

Given, the United States has done far too little and Germany has done a lot.

A mature democracy allows distinctions

Now, however, Germany has earned the right and the responsibility to make – and to allow — distinctions.

However, rather than doing that, most Germans tend to slather any such issue with an emotionally driven response that fails to make distinctions. For if they do so, they see themselves and their compatriots see them as going down the road to fascism, yet again.

Again, totally unnecessary, for if any people have demonstrated that they can be democratic and uphold a democracy, it is the Germans.

That the editors of the major Berlin newspaper, however, have not reached the cultural and political maturity to make distinctions is disheartening.

A pivotal skill in today’s crises

Today’s world, today’s challenges and today’s politics cry out for making careful distinctions, not only about past German history — but also about current challenges.

It is time for Germany to shed the habit of historical guilt, which really betrays an over-wrought sense of self, and to make and allow the distinctions so necessary to understanding and to commentating on today’s world.

In short, to the Tagesspiegel editors: “Das ist keine Meinungsfreiheit und keine Pressefreiheit!” That is not freedom of opinion and not freedom of the press!

Takeaways

Today’s world, today’s challenges and today’s politics cry out for media commentators to make careful distinctions.

Berlin’s newspaper, Der Tagesspiegel, has forced out Harald Martenstein, its longtime columnist. His transgression? Making distinctions. His greatest skill? Making distinctions.

I have often said, Germany is quite possibly the only country that has truly taken responsibility and owned up to its dark past.

It is time for Germany to shed the reflexive habit of historical guilt. A mature democracy allows the distinctions that are necessary to commentating on today’s world.

A columnist has the right to express an opinion even on very sensitive subjects, all the more so when it is based on a well-reasoned distinction.